One day about six months ago, University of Arizona President Eugene G. Sander was sitting in a boat on a lake, fishing pole in hand.
"I was just sitting there in the middle of that lake and I thought, boy – a cigarette would be good right now."
The thought fluttered past him like a gentle spring breeze. By then, it had been 15 years since Sander smoked his last cigarette.
Sander has been a scientist all of his adult life. For most of his adult life, he smoked cigarettes, up to three packs a day. And for most of those years, he tried to quit – at least once a year, he estimates, for the last 20 years that he smoked.
He finally quit in 1996, after his regular doctor referred him to Dr. Myra Muramoto, a researcher in the family and community medicine department and a nationally recognized expert on smoking cessation.
"It's great," he says of his smoke-free life. "In fact, I view it as a miracle."
Sander – who served as dean of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences from 1987 until July of this year, when the Arizona Board of Regents tapped him to serve as UA president – talks candidly about his smoking habit, how he tried to quit and failed, and how he finally succeeded.
"I'm a scientist. I'm a biochemist. I knew what I was doing to myself and yet there wasn't much I could do in terms of stopping smoking," he recalls. "I can't tell you the number of times I tried. I remember one time throwing a bunch of cigarettes in a Dumpster in back of a hotel when I was out of town, and about 2 o'clock in the morning going down and going through the Dumpster trying to find the pack of cigarettes. That's how hooked I was.
"I firmly believe that I was addicted to nicotine just as surely had I been addicted to heroin or any other drug. The difference was it was not illegal. So it was perfectly accepted, and for many years it was more or less expected. People who were hip, slick and cool smoked.
"I was a fairly successful athlete both in college and in high school. I really didn't start to smoke until I was in the latter two years of college. Once I was on cigarettes it just got worse and worse and worse to the point where I probably smoked three packs of cigarettes a day toward the end of the whole thing."
At one point he tried chewing tobacco – but only once. It made him sick to his stomach. He tried cigars, thinking no one inhales cigars. He inhaled. He tried a pipe. It was a waste of effort.
"I remember one time I quit for almost six, seven months, and then one day I said to myself, ‘One cigarette won't hurt.' I bought a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and I smoked them all in about three hours."
The turning point came in 1996. "What finally took me over the edge was my physician told me that I'd lost about 30 percent of my lung capacity. And that really bothered me. And he shared with me that I would be better off wearing nicotine patches the rest of my life than I would be continuing to smoke."
After that, Sander had his first appointment with Muramoto, an expert on nicotine dependence and other forms of addiction, and director of the tobacco-cessation clinic in family and community medicine.
"I never will forget how she made me feel when she said, ‘Well, you're just like my heroin addicts or my alcoholics.' That sort of took me to the bottom, and I said to myself, I really have to do something about this. And so I put these nicotine patches on. I'd smoked with nicotine patches on earlier. But this time I was pretty dedicated to the idea that I was going to do it."
The instructions on the package were to wear one patch each week for four weeks. The patch for week two provided a lower dose of nicotine than the patch for week one, and so on.
"It didn't work for me that way," Sander says. "I was on those things for six months. And what I used to do – with Myra's coaching – was every week I would take a scissors and I would go ‘snip.' I'd take the strongest ones I could get, since the cost was essentially the same, and I made my own by snipping off little corners. First I would cut them in half or whatever I could do, and I snip, snip, snipped.
"And then one morning – six months later – I forgot to put one on and I simply went to work. When I realized what I'd done I said, ‘I've quit!'"
His cravings for nicotine continued. But this time, they weren't as intense.
"I'm 76 years old and doing very well, thank you very much. But I don't know, at 76, if I'd be with you right now if I'd continued to smoke for the last 15 years."