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Ex-smoker hopes his loss will be others’ gain

Shawn Wright was a smoker.

Nothing could stop him: not the death of his father; not the scolding of doctors; not the high taxes; not the banishment from bars and restaurants; not his girlfriend’s disapproval.

Wright even kept smoking as oncologists diagnosed his throat cancer, one Pall Mall after another. He smoked right before and right after each of his 36 radiation treatments.

And then surgeons sliced his neck open and cut out his larynx.

“There I am in the hospital, looking at myself in the mirror after my surgery and I thought ‘Whoa … What have I done to myself?’ ” said Wright, now 51 years old. “That was it. There was no way I was going to stick a cigarette into that hole in my neck so I could smoke.”

That was 3  ½ years ago.

Today he is exhibiting his disfigured neck as a key part of the U.S. government’s newest front in the fight against smoking. Graphic new advertisements printed in newspapers, magazines, aired on television and streamed online feature Wright and a handful of other former smokers describing life in the aftermath of cigarettes.

The advertising campaign is the first by the federal government in 30 years, a $54 million effort designed to shock viewers.

“We’re hoping that these ads, by depicting real people like Shawn, will help bring alive the suffering and how unnecessary all of it is,” said Dr. Tim McAfee, who directs tobacco control and prevention programs for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anti-smoking campaigns and studies have often focused on death statistics, McAfee said. Yet millions more people afflicted by cancer and other aftermaths of smoking-related diseases remain alive. In many cases they live long lives that are marred by medical disability.

The ads zoom in on these conditions.

Wright is shown twice in the CDC’s Anthem Ad. He is shown first in the shower, where he looks into the camera and says: “When you have a hole in your neck, don’t face the showerhead.”

As the 30-second clip ends, he is shown leaning in to the bathroom mirror, face lathered: “Be careful shaving,” he says, carefully scraping whiskers from his compromised neck.

Said McAfee, “Shawn is somebody I think people in Spokane and Washington state should be proud of. He’s a hero. He had a devastating diagnosis and illness that required a stoma (an opening in the neck) and yet he’s going on with his life.”

Wright will play with his country blues band, The Bone Pins, at the corner of Lindeke and Boone during next weekend’s Bloomsday race.

He doesn’t sing much because of his stoma, but he finds a positive: “It’s made me a much better guitar player.”

Wright’s voice is gravelly, but the cadence of his speech and his emphasis remains clear. That’s due to technology and the availability of new devices that are replacing the electrolarynx, which sounds robotic.

Wright started smoking at age 15. He snuck cigarettes from his dad to fit in with friends.

For the next three decades he smoked. And smoked. He watched his father die of lung cancer and tried to quit a few times. Each effort ended with failure.

“I just loved smoking,” he said. “But that was then. Now I’m one of those people who are anti-smoking.”

An advertising agency chose Wright for the CDC campaign when he responded to an ad posted on WebWhispers, an online support group for people with larynx cancer.

They flew him to New York City for the ad shoot, and later to Washington, D.C., for the campaign rollout.

The entire affair has helped Wright better cope with his stoma and steeled his stance against smoking.

McAfee said the ads are working and come at a time when many states, including Washington, have cut back or eliminated smoking cessation efforts because of budget cuts.

“We need to share our stories as a warning,” Wright said, “because nowadays smokers don’t die so soon from cancer. Instead the doctors can keep you alive.

“They keep ripping your body parts out and you keep living.”

About one in five adults in Spokane smoke. Nearly one in four high school seniors reported last year that they smoke cigarettes.

From his home along West Boone Avenue, Wright watches the neighborhood kids smoke and it bothers him.

“If they only realized what’s going to happen,” he said.

Perhaps they will.

Perhaps they will see Shawn Wright on television.