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Learning the lessons of Debi Austin’s life

POSTED March 12, 2013 8:52 p.m.

It is with great interest that I’ve been following the story of Debi Austin, the woman from the trailblazing 1996 California anti-tobacco ad. Austin recently passed away after battling a host of health problems brought on by decades of smoking.

Austin, who began her addiction at age 13, was already plowing through a pack of cigarettes per day before she graduated from junior high school. Not long later, she underwent a laryngectomy that left a permanent hole in her neck.

It was then that the State of California reached out to her about partaking in an ad that would hopefully open young people’s eyes to the frightening realities of tobacco’s deadliness. Though at first shunning the idea of facing millions of people with her story, Austin came to realize what an impact she could have by lending herself to the “Voicebox” ad, in which she smoked a cigarette through the hole in her neck.

And an impact she had indeed. Last week, when I watched for the first time “the most-recognized and talked about California tobacco control ad,” — according to the California Department of Public Health — I was left, quite simply, shocked.

Austin lent herself to numerous other ads as well, and in a video for the California Tobacco Control Program in 2011 she revealed the full extent of her courageous aims by saying, “I told [my doctor] I’ve got to talk to a million kids, so you’ve got to keep me patched up till I’m done.”

No doubt, in her 62 year lifespan, Austin boldly broke new ground and layed the framework for increased tobacco awareness, but a handful of unsightly statistics suggests that the noble task she undertook is yet to be completed.

Last year, the Surgeon General reported that nearly 1.5 million individuals under the age of 18 take up smoking each year. In addition, the report noted that three million high school and 600,000 junior high school students admit to regular cigarette use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that approximately 30 percent of teen smokers will meet an early demise due to a disease directly brought on by tobacco intake.

Clearly, as a society we must adopt a meaningful, far-seeing approach to educate society’s most impressionable about smoking’s dangerous effects. For, when the numbers reach the point that they have, it is no longer an issue for another time or another era to tackle. It’s an issue that needs to be nipped in the bud, here and now.

Perhaps the first step could be probing the roots of what stimulates teen smoking. The most likely explanation is that teenagers see the fatal aftermath of tobacco use as “other people’s” unfortunate twists of fate, or they draw on the excuse that they should be allowed to “live life to the fullest.”

In truth, however, this false sense of invincibility dangerously makes them forget the futures of coronary heart disease, esophageal cancer, lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema, just to name a few, that lurk right around the corner. Parents, educators, mentors or anyone who has lived through to affirm the damage can be invaluable resources in sounding the wake-up call.

And the call must be given immediately. For, according to the Surgeon General, preventing tobacco use among individuals before they reach the age of 26 greatly reduces the possibility of them ever succumbing to it in the future.

Some teenagers themselves are even beginning to take on the task. The Protecting Health and Slamming Tobacco (PHAST) club at Turlock High School has worked to lay bare the facts about smoking’s effects in an effective, peer-to-peer manner.

During Red Ribbon week, PHAST leagued with the school’s Medi-Careers Club to set up a booth during lunchtime where students could stop by and put their knowledge about tobacco statistics to the test. In addition, students could take a long, hard look at jars filled with substances proportionally accurate to how much mucus and tar accumulate yearly in a smoker’s system.

No doubt, the reception among the crowd of students was overwhelmingly filled with squeals. A few teenagers might have been downright horrified. But the message behind it, to preserve the precious treasure of health, couldn’t have been clearer.

And the titanic wave of awareness needed starts with small, meaningful effort like that.

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