New Jersey has the nation's fifth highest number of reported HIV cases in the nation, with an estimated 39 percent of those cases caused by drug users sharing contaminated syringes. Such statistics are obvious causes for concern, not only for the general welfare of our residents but also for the steep health-care cost to taxpayers.

But there is reason for hope.

New Jersey's needle-exchange pilot programs are off to a strong start, and Congress recently voted against a ban on federal funding for needle-exchange programs.

Congress stripped from a spending bill language that would have banned any clinics located within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, and other places where children congregate. I thank Congress for doing so. Such a ban, for instance, would have limited Newark's program to a spot on an airport runway.

New Jersey was the last state in the nation to approve needle-access programs until the law Sen. Nia H. Gill (D., Essex) and I sponsored in 2006. It took another year to set the regulations, but pilot programs are running in Atlantic City, Camden, Newark, and Paterson.

They seem to be working, with more than 3,000 people registered with the programs, which are simple, cheap, and a proven way to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS.

This is a smart investment and sound public policy.

Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden)

Speaker of the General Assembly