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Conflict & Tragedy

Terrie Hall, anti-smoking advocate dies at 53

Terri Hall, who starred in public service announcement ads for the Centers for Disease Control died Monday due to complications of cancer directly caused by her lifelong smoking habit. She was 53. Hall finally kicked the habit, but not before the disease spread and became unmanageable.

Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC, called her a "public health hero," stating that, "She may well have saved more lives than most doctors do," by preventing kids from starting on the deadly, slow-killing habit. CDC officials believe that the campaign may have encouraged as many as 100,000 people to quit the dangerous habit.

In March, 2012, her first ad, called "Tips for a Former Smoker," showed viewers how to get ready for the day. Her electronic voice gave away the fact that her voice box had been removed to try and stop the cancer from spreading. The ad began by showing a photograph of Terrie in her younger, more vibrant years.

Then the camera shows Terrie as she appeared: Without hair, without teeth, and a prominent voice box on her neck. The 30-second ad is graphic in its simplicity, and drives home the message that smoking can devastate even the healthiest person's life.

"My name's Terrie and I used to be a smoker. I want to give you some tips about getting ready in the morning. First your teeth." She looks into the camera matter-of-factly and continues, "Then your wig." She flips the wig onto her head. "Then your hands-free device," as she clicks a component into place that allows her to speak without pressing the button at her neck.

"Now you're ready for the day."

Her expression at the end of the ad is heartbreaking. It wasn't just a message saying, "Don't smoke, kids." It was a message that showed very clearly what smoking can and will do to the human body. Perhaps Hall's death was not in vain, as her message reached nearly three million viewers since its release.

According to the CDC, the costs of smoking are more than just the price of a pack of cigarettes. From 2000 to 2004, cigarette smoking "cost more than $193 billion ($97 billion in lost productivity plus $96 billion in health care expenditures.)" The agency also asserts that secondhand smoke costs more than $10 billion in health care costs, illness and death.

Some more startling facts about kids and smoking highlight a drastic need for the kind of campaign the CDC is running. At least 4,000 persons per day under the age of 18 light up for the first time, and at least 1,000 persons per day become regular smokers.

Hall’s second CDC ad is even more heart wrenching, as she admits that her addiction to cigarettes was so strong that she smoked up until she entered to hospital to have her larynx removed. After she got home, she began to realize her addiction was stronger than she ever thought:

"And I didn't know that I was so addicted until after I got out of the hospital, when I went home. I went straight…I went straight to my bedroom, picked up a cigarette, put it in my mouth, and lit it. And for the first time I looked at myself in the mirror. And I thought, "Terrie, what are you doing? You have a hole in your neck, and you're getting ready to use what did it to you."

My father passed away in late 1990 due to complications of heart disease aggravated by his inability to quit smoking. He literally starved his heart of oxygen during the decade he battled the illness. My close friend's mother died just months later from lung cancer caused by smoking at least a pack a day. Both had smoked since their teens and both had tried to quit several times.

Like many smokers, Hall had her first cigarette at a very young age. She lit up for the first time at 13. By the time she was 17 she was a regular smoker.

Terrie Hall was only 53 when she died this week in a Winston-Salem hospital. Her cancer had spread to her brain. My father was only 49 when he passed away. My friend's mother was even younger, not yet 45. Perhaps Terrie Hall and other participants in the "Tips From a Former Smoker" campaign will help save even more lives by showing just how brutal smoking is on the body. Perhaps they will also save lives by preventing other 13-year-olds from lighting up for the first time.